Monday, January 18, 2010

Learning Non-violence: Howard Thurman (& the Problem of Haiti)

This year's Martin Luther King Holiday is marred with a horrifically ironic twist: that on a holiday that celebrates non-violence, we should see the devastation of the first Black Republic of Haiti (NOT acheived through non-violence) suffering not just a natural disaster, but also a disaster exacerbated by the culmination of centuries of targeting by Western Empires and racism. At the time that Haiti violently threw off the reins of slavery, the concept of non-violent resistance had not become the new tool of the oppressed.

It has been argued that without Howard Thurman, who taught King non-violent resistance to oppression, we would have no Martin Luther King. But who is this man, Thurman and considering how well-known King is, Why has Thurman been forgotten into the annals of history?

Howard Thurman, a theologian, was King's mentor and teacher. It was through Thurman, who had met with Mohandas "Mahatma" (meaning "Great Soul") K. Ghandi, that King learned the the Mahatma's teaching of non-violent resistance, called Satyagraha, or literally "truth-grasping". Gandhi in turn had been influenced by Thoreau's Civil Disobedience (a kind of "Pizza Effect"*). However, the important expansion that Gandhi added to the concept of mere civil disobedience was to add the "spiritual" component (making satyagraha not just political action but a spiritual YOGA), that it was not just an outward act, but a way of life (yoga) that emerged from a sense of ahimsa (literally "non-violence"). His was not just a public political act informed by a sense of morality and ethics, but also a spiritual act arising out of a person's essential approach to life. This meant that even in the face of tremendous opposition and horrific violence, no matter how great the injustice, one must cultivate a sense of ahimsa and not only avoid engaging in physical violence but even control the sensation of anger!

As for why such an important figure as Howard Thurman is relatively unknown today (outside of progressive activist circles), may be a reflection of our celebrity-obsessed culture. In a society as profoundly anti-intellectual as the United States, sayings such as "those who can't do: teach," enjoy tremendous circulation and acceptance. Because of the values and imaginations of industrialization and processes of rationalization (Max Weber dubbed this rationalisierung) the value of results is prioritized over the value of the process or the journey to achieving a goal. This deemphasizes the commitment and depth of a genuine and open-ended pursuit of learning to wherever it would take you, and instead reduces education to a mechanistic, results-oriented bottom line. In today's world, this means that college education is now about higher earnings rather than intellectual enlightenment or god-forbid spiritual and ethical cultivation! (See this article about this sea-change in college students' attitude towards the value of a college degree and the notion of "careerism".)

This year's celebration of Martin Luther King Day is ensconced in an horrific postmodern juxtaposition. Though not even postmodernists themselves can define what it is (which itself is very postmodern) it is enough to say it is about the contradictions of life, and that invariable we live in a postmodern era. (The postmodern era beginning after The Bomb, whereafter humanity now has the ability to annihilate itself with the press of a button). In this case, during a holiday where non-violence is celebrated, we see the long term effects of liberation achieved by other means. Haiti, threw off the reins of slavery through decisively non non-violent means, freeing the slaves, kicking out the French, and declaring a free Republic. Immediately the U.S. began a longstanding blockade of the first Black Republic, and Haiti was also forced to pay reparations to the French for the loss of their investments when all slaves were freed. These racist practices had long term effects as Haiti was devastated and harangued both internally and externally for most of its history. This may very well have played an important factor in the quality of the physical infrastructure of the country. So while we celebrate non-violent resistance, I think this bitter irony of what happens to those who fight oppression in other ways, should let us reflect on how dominance is so pervasive as to even shape our the way in which victims are to resist it!

*The Pizza Effect is the process where a certain cultural practice leaves the country of origin (pizza from Italy coming to America) then changes in its new home, only to return to the original country in its new form (and coming to dominate).

-The Brain Demon

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